Thursday, March 12, 2009

Life After Homicide

Is there life after homicide? No, I obviously don't mean for the victims---I mean for the killers.

This is a question that struck me after one of my patients, a convicted murderer who violated his parole, said to me: "I don't feel good about the fact that I'm a killer."

For some reason that statement just struck me and I'm not sure why. Of course someone would feel bad about killing. Sociopaths don't, but most normal non-sociopathic killers do. I think it hit me because my patient's offense had happened over a decade before and he had done well on parole since his release. He was really sad about what he had done and was trying to make things better.

The fact of the matter is that all killers aren't the same. You have the barfight killers, the enraged jealous lover killers, the cold and calculating hit man killers, the child abuse killers, the sadistic serial killers, the drunk driver killers, the school shooting killers, the newborn infant hidden pregnancy killers, the "teenager who kills his entire family" killers and so on and so on. Everybody's different. Ever since the middle ages and the old English common law, killings have been broken down into different categories of murder and manslaughter so that killers would be punished in accordance with the type of killing they're guilty of.

But back to my patient. The question that came to me was, "How do you handle the guilt of being a killer?"

Is it like dealing with grief in the bereaved, where you never really expect someone to just 'get over' something? Is it something you just have to learn to live with? Do you tell the patient that they're now obligated to live the rest of their lives paying their debt to society? Is there a point where the guilt should end? Or is the person really obligated to spend the rest of their life beating himself with a knotted cord? What good does that do?

It's a matter of public record that the Emmy Award-winning actor Charles Dutton was an inmate in our correctional system back in the 1970's for killing someone. To my knowledge he's never been in trouble since then, he's turned his life around, and he's contributed a lot to society since he's gotten out. Most killers don't put their pasts behind them quite so successfully. In my experience a killer who successfully has turned his life around is someone who gets out, has a job, has a place to live, has people who love him and who doesn't commit too many more crimes. It's a bit much to expect someone to never get in trouble again---life is weird, circumstances happen beyond your control and bad reputations throw a long shadow---but at least it shouldn't be another violent offense.

As all of my patients know, it's better to make a life than take a life. It's just a lot tougher to make a life.